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Predicting the Supreme Court's Health Care Ruling

It is widely assumed that sometime today, the nine Supreme Court Justices will cast their initial vote in the landmark health care suit they heard earlier this week. Their final say won’t be public until late June, so in the meantime, we’ll all have to distract ourselves with educated guesses. One such guess, put forth by David Lauter for the LA Times, predicted doom for the government’s case. He based this on a statistical model showing that hostile questioning, like the kind General Solicitor Don Verrilli faced from Roberts and Kennedy, tends to be predictive of a justice’s vote. Yet, the merits of the government’s case remain strong in principal. When polled by the American Bar Association, a hefty 85 percent of experienced court-watchers predicted that the Court would uphold the law. Who should we believe?

Unfortunately for the Obama administration, probably not the legal experts. A 2004 study by Theodore W. Ruger, Pauline T. Kim, Andrew D. Martin, and Kevin M. Quinn, titled,  “The Supreme Court Forecasting Project: Legal and Political Science Approached to Predicting Supreme Court Decisionmaking,” said legal experts are not very successful at predicting the outcomes of Supreme Court cases. Particularly for cases involving “economic activity,” and particularly when it comes to predicting the votes of more centrist justices, including Kennedy. Of course, Ruger, et al, compared a different statistical model than the one that Lauter refers to in the Times. But with legal experts making the right call on SCOTUS outcomes only 59.1% of the time, that’s still not exactly encouraging for fans of the law.